Fellowship of Isis History Archive - Twilight of the Gods


Olivia and FOI members standing outside the Temple of Isis, Clonegal Castle. Photo is copyrighted ©.

From The Guardian, a major British daily newspaper

Dated: 09 March, 1991

Note from Caroline Wise: "In March 1991, I was approached in the shop I then owned, Atlantis Bookshop, by a woman who was writing a novel about witches. I am not a witch, but the woman, who was a journalist, had just visited Olivia and Derry at Clonegal Castle for her research, not least because here was a public Temple. She had said that Olivia and Derry should interview us about the future of the Fellowship. The article was titled 'Twilight of the Gods' and was written by Jessica Berens."
 
_____________________________
 
Twilight of the Gods
by Jessica Berens

The silent courtyard of Clonegal Castle in Ireland is the gateway to the Fellowship of Isis. Amongst shrines and chapels dedicated to pagan goddesses, Jessica Berens attempts to find out why 10,000 people, along with Olivia and Lawrence Durdin-Robertson, worship the ancient Egyptian deity of space and time.

There are many extraordinary things about Clonegal Castle. Strange discarnate singing has been heard late at night, flashing lights have been spotted in the sky and there are so many spectral visitants it comes as some surprise to learn that room has been left for any corporeal occupant. Tapestried chambers, gloomy corridors, panelled bedrooms - all are frequented by the chimaeric reminders of a family saga that is nearly 300 years old.
 
Lady Esmond, the granddaughter of Grace O'Malley, combs her hair in the moonlit garden. Barbara St. Leger, her keys tied to her waist, occupies the chapel, as does the bloodless presence of her maid, Honor. A former Bishop of Limerick manifests his episcopal self near a fireplace and, in the six-century old Yew Walk, where elderly branches have curled forward to knit a natural tunnel, there are monks. Clonegal Castle is a place whose legend tells the visitor to expect only the unexpected.
 
Driving through pastoral County Carlow to Clonegal, a petite village of unlively character, one turns sharp left into a driveway indicated by a small sign saying, 'Castle.' Here there is an atmosphere encouraging the suggestibility already stimulated by the very act of arriving in Southern Ireland. In a preternaturally silent courtyard the grass pokes through cobble-stones and blue paint flakes off the swinging doors of horseless stables. Gateways offer glimpses into leafy beyonds and, attached to a wall, there is a huge dragon with rolling eyes. The castle, red-bricked, is crenellated in places and seems, structurally, to be the result of the work of many different pairs of hands. In the porch four stone saints, palms together, are united in heavenly collusion.
 
The front door creaks open slightly less loudly than one might expect. At first there seems to be no one about except for the glassy-eyed buffalo heads that line a dusty antechamber, then the atmosphere of the dim passageway is suddenly enhanced by the presence of Olivia Durdin-Robertson. Olivia Durdin-Robertson, Archpriestess, Hierophant, Psychopompos, Cosmic Guide and Co-Founder of the Fellowship of Isis.
 
She is wearing a vermillion velvet jacket, a black polo neck and a long black skirt. Knotted around an arrangement of long brown hair there is a vermillion scarf and on fingers that might have been drawn by Ronald Searle there is an assortment of rings.
 
She is 73 but you would never guess, for, vivacious and energetic, there is something vernal about her. She does not draw breath but what pours unfalteringly forth is always interesting and sometimes funny. 'Do you know if you feed bees sugar they get diarrhea,' is a typical non-sequitur. 'We're very into nature here.' She introduces her brother Lawrence Durdin-Robertson, Baron Strathloch, ('Call him Derry'). A withdrawn man, he stares bleakly into the glow of the three separate fires attempting to heat his sitting room.
 
Lunch is roast chicken and potatoes served from a trolley which springs out of a fireplace connected, cunningly, to the kitchen. There are silver candlesticks, and portraits, and the walls are draped with fabric from a Bedouin Arab tent.
 
Olivia Durdin-Robertson's voice bears the public school echo of her Heathfield education. It is the organisational tone one hears around gymkhanas and village fetes. "If you're county," she declares from her end of the table, "You're destined to be either horsey or arty. We were arty."
 
Conversation moves quickly and ineluctably to the Fellowship of Isis and the 10,000 people who have joined in order to become more familiar with this Egyptian deity and the many other goddesses venerated by the Durdin-Robertsons. Among their mailing list of policemen, teachers and civil servants, there is a Jesuit priest who works in the Vatican library, a Cherokee chieftain and a convict. 'We were a little taken aback when we found out he was in for murder.'
 
The Elders of this unusual organisation have been criticised for their libertarian attitude to recruiting. "We don't screen members," says Olivia. "We have plenty of people of bad reputation. We feel Isis transforms them. We're more religious than occult and we are based on love rather than anything else."
 
There are over 300 Lyceums and Iseums all over the world, the difference being that the former perform rituals from the liturgy written by Olivia and the latter are more loosely connected cabals. In Nigeria ('They join in whole families'), in America ('They want a Goddess like something in Star Trek') in Russia and in Hungary. "The thing is," she says, "it's not boring. It's fun and jolly."
 
Then she talks of a forthcoming race that will communicate in a cosmic language and be unafraid of death, and she reflects on the ridicule that those who speak of the supernatural and UFOs inevitably incur. It is the 'normal' person's defence, she thinks, against fear of the unknown future. "People ask me if I'm 'dabbling' and I say no I'm not 'dabbling', I'm up to my neck in it."
 
Lawrence Durdin-Robertson retains the distant air of a person immersed in silent contemplation. When asked about magic he says, voice pianissimo, that he is no longer involved in it. He lost his psychic powers when his wife Pamela died four years ago. But he hopes he will regain them later this year when he marries Joan, Contesse de Frenay, an old family friend and Tarot card reader.
 
Has Olivia ever wanted to get married, I wonder. "Not remotely," she says. "Have you?" As coffee is sipped before the medley of fires in the sitting room the interest turns to the vespertine itinerants said to haunt the family home.
 
"Oh we see them all the time," says Olivia. "We just walk through them don't we Mrs Shiel?"
 
"What's that?," says the Irish lady bringing in a tray.
 
"Ghosts."
 
"Oh yes. They're part of the furniture."
 
Bulging photograph albums are produced which display less family life. Here is their dog Carpet who 'once bit the journalist Sue Arnold on the leg,' and there is a priestess wearing a black veil. 'Isn't she nice?'
 
Here are rows of hippies that were friends of Lawrence's son David in the Sixties (David now lives with his family in a wing of the castle) and there are Irish press cuttings which are amused or astonished but never malicious. "We are quite popular," explains Olivia, "because we have no secrets. We never hide anything. And we have a relationship with the village because they are involved. They play football in our field, they come and watch the festivals and our guests stay in the local pub."
 
Although they have been described as witches, Olivia says they are not. Witches do worship a Goddess but their rituals and celebrations are very different to those of the Fellowship of Isis.
 
For the purpose of photographs Lawrence and Olivia change into the ceremonial robes they wear when performing rituals in honour of Isis. In the case of Lawrence this involves black academic robes, crook, and a tall blue hat of the variety sometimes seen on the head of the Egyptian god Osiris in the British Museum. Olivia appears with a crown that is a copper asp, lotus wand, embroidered dress that she bought in the Egyptian Shop in Dublin, and a sistrum, 'the oldest musical instrument in the world'.
 
And so, through the castle's crepuscular corridors, where the light seeps grudgingly through leaded windows causing distorted silhouettes to appear, one descends down stone steps to the hyperborean dungeon that has been transformed into the temple.
 
In one corner there is an ancient well dedicated to the Goddess Brighid and winding around the floor are two vast, stuffed, multi-coloured snakes. There are 12 shrines (for the zodiac) and five chapels (for different Goddesses).
 
Puzzling but beautiful, some altars are adorned with orange feathers, chrysanthemums and gold cloth. Others have china birds, or frogs, or photographs of worshippers. There are candles and stained glass windows and carved statuettes of everybody from the Virgin Mary to Ceridwen (a Welsh goddess) and Lakshmi (the Hindu goddess of wealth).
 
Olivia goes to this temple twice a day at 5.30am ('after my bath so I'm hot') and at dusk. She doesn't so much worship Isis, she observes, as say hello and share a joke. Eight times a year Festivals of the Goddess are celebrated on roughly the same dates that appear on the pagan calendar. March 21, for instance, is Eostra, and the Spring Equinox, and there will be a ceremony based on liturgies written by Olivia.
 
Thirty or so people will gather at the castle, incense will be burned, prayers will be said, then there will be healing and meditation. These are followed by a performance of the Oracle of Pallas Athena, Goddess of Wisdom, for which there will be a procession through the garden with flutes and drums a play will be enacted by various votaries dressed up as Athena (white robe and spear), Pandrosus (gold head band), and Hermes (winged helmet, caduceus).
 
"We love doing them," says Olivia. "Our main aim in producing these mystery dramas is to create rituals that teach the laws of expanding consciousness. These dramas are not ritual magic in the practical sense, they are not intended to produce effects on the physical environment, but rather to affect the minds and feelings of those taking part."
 
Lawrence and Olivia's parents were called Manning and Nora. He, a town planner, came from a Scots-Irish line and she was an Anglo-Irish aristocrat who shot big game, wrote celebrated books about salmon fishing, and invented the fly known as the Black Maria.
 
The Twenties, of course, were an unnerving time for the landowners of southern Ireland and, although eccentric, the family, in some ways, were also classics of a type that had long inhabited the Pale. They were patrician and Protestant and thus symbolised the oppression against which Fenians raged.
 
Clonegal is in a strategic position because it is near a main road to Dublin which provides access to the counties Wexford and Wicklow. In 1921 the IRA took it as a headquarters from which to plan guerrilla warfare designed to persuade the British troops to remove themselves.
 
The Durdin-Robertsons removed the children to the safety of Reigate. A surbuban existance that was uninterrupted by miraculous occurrence, for neither mother nor father were of psychical bent.
 
"One writer said that we were concerned with a matriachal Goddess because as children we were traumatised by the fact that Mummy went out killing crocodiles," says Olivia. "But I don't think that's true."
 
The Irish Free State was established, and in 1922 the family returned to the castle, which had been saved from traditional conflagration by a vote amongst Republican believers in the village. The excitement of living in a home recently vacated by rebels and the strangeness of a land where the roads were rough and the traffic horse-drawn stimulated the children's imagination. Olivia Durdin-Robertson began to dream. She saw huge silvery ladies with black hair. She saw young men doing magic and she saw old men with white beards. Some of them seemed as real as you or I. So, at the age of 22, she went to learn mediumship at the London College of Psychic Studies and she studied healing with the Spiritualist Association. She read books by and about occultists. And, bit by bit, she learned to control the power that felt like electric tingling down her spine and enabled her to see colours and lights and figures that remained invisible to others.
 
Her brother, meanwhile, had similar experiences but was ordained into the Anglican church for whom he worked as a rector in County Wicklow, then Norfolk. He married a woman, according to Olivia, who was 'so psychic she could talk to plants'.
 
Then in 1966, at the age of 49 and on the day of Halloween, Olivia experienced a spiritual awakening in which she learned that God was a woman.
 
Her brother agreed with her, and so, she discovered did many other people. In 1976, following countless inquiries about the Goddess, they launched the Fellowship of Isis. Polytheistic, it embraced multitudinous myths, cultures and creeds.
 
They wrote a manifesto: 'The Fellowship reverences all manifestations of Life,' it said. 'The Rites exclude any form of sacrifice whether actual or symbolic. Nature is revered and conserved.'
 
'The Fellowship accepts religious toleration and is not exclusivist. Members are free to maintain other religious allegiances. Membership is open to all of every religion, tradition and race.'
 
'The Fellowship believes in the promotion of Love, Beauty and Abundance. No encouragement is given to asceticism.'
 
It was an apt answer to a childhood whose backdrop had been the violence of a war that may not have been about religion, but was, nevertheless, fought between two denominations who considered themselves sanctified by the grace of God.
 
The Durdin-Robertsons have written quite a lot of books which they publish themselves under the name of Cesara (the niece of Noah). Lawrence's tend to adopt a scholarly approach to the status of goddesses in the pantheons of ancient civilisations. Olivia's, as one might expect, are very mystical indeed. Her volumes are full of mesmerising references to Eleusinian Mysteries, the sea horses of Manannan and ladies who descend all spheres to rescue Shepherds of the Starry Flocks. There are Sun Birds, and Vestal Flames, and Many-Coloured Lands. But, amidst this vaudeville of magical personages, acolytes can also find the specifics required if one wishes to glorify the Goddess in the comfort of one's own Beguine. She details the setting up of an altar, for instance, as well as initiations, rites and dedications to shrines. They have also set up the College of Isis which offers a structured Magi Degree Course. Tuition is given by a Priestess-Hierophant and there are 32 working degrees, the 33rd relating to those who have had a 'spontaneous mystical awakening'. The rites are based on the '33 intersecting points made by the 8 pointed Star of Ishtar bisecting the four-fold coils of the Dragon Goddess Tiamat.'
 
Caroline Wise and Steve Wilson are not confused by all this. He, an accountant, honours Nuit, Egyptian goddess of space and stars and she, a bookdealer, communes with Isis. They have been ordained into the Fellowship as priestly hierophants and now run the London Lyceum of the Isis of Time and Space. There are, in London, two Lyceums and (to their knowledge) 10 Iseums.
 
The eight members of the London Lyceum of the Isis of Time and Space meet once a month and devote their free time to healing and conservation, in particular they relish the finding and cleaning up of old and forgotten wells. They feel that Isis and the worship of the Divine Feminine is a natural progression from feminist and ecological thinking and is facilitated by the decline in Christianity and spiritually unsatisfying nature of the materialism that replaced it.
 
For Caroline her involvement with the Fellowship has enabled her to channel her psychic energy to constructive uses. Steve appreciates a philosophy which does not expect perfection from its initiates. The Durdin-Robertson's achievement, they feel, is in bringing the word of the Goddess to a wide and disparate audience.
 
But what of the future of the Fellowship of Isis? There will come a point, one suspects, when Lawrence and Olivia will succumb to biological fact and transfer themselves to that Other World which they have spent so much time inspecting. Can Isis survive without their encouragement? David Durdin-Robertson will inherit the castle and has agreed to run Cesara, but he is not a committed devotee.
 
Mystician tends to thrive in a millenarian atmosphere, but the history of the occult is rife with the divisionary power struggles of ambitious magi. Could an aspirational priestess or Imperator succeed in a take-over bid?
 
No way. The point, say Caroline and Steve, is that the Fellowship has been designed to encompass loose collectives and autonomously run temples. Titles some people may have, but these do not grant them privileges over others. 'The best way for a person to lose respect would be to try and take it over,' says Steve, 'and if they did no-one would take the blind bit of notice of what they said.' 'In the end,' concludes Caroline confidently, 'It's up to the Goddess.'

Note From Caroline Wise: 'Pause for Thought'

"It was interesting to stumble across this archive article nearly twenty years later. There was a very positive response to it at the time, with the exception of two FOI members, both from England.
 
One had an hysterical fit, claiming the Fellowship’s laundry had been washed in public (she could not explain which particular item of linen this was, nor why Olivia and Derry should not speak to the press!). The second naysayer was a usual suspect who was always negative, a woman always very unhappy about anything other members did. I often thought she was unhappy that there were members other than her! I do wonder why some people join something then try to mould the founders into their own uptight vision of what they should be like. Sometimes the Goddess gets forgotten.
 
Personally, I love the openness and lack of restriction in the Fellowship and I think this is a really good interview. It came at a time when we in the UK who were openly for the Goddess and paganism were feeling the constant heat of the right wing fundamentalists and their ‘satanic abuse’ fantasies. That makes it all the more important, to me, that we could be out in the main stream press, something Olivia has always regarded as positive. Her wit and pragmatism always come shining through, two brilliant virtues to escort the Goddess into the modern world."


Back to Fellowship of Isis History Archive



Comments